At intermission during the opening performance of The Handmaid’s Tale at Boston Lyric Opera, an older couple behind me debriefed.
“I find it too unpleasant,” the woman said of the story.
“Well, it’s not Puccini,” her partner conceded.
It happened that Margaret Atwood, the author of the original 1985 novel on which Danish composer Poul Ruders based his 2000 opera, was within earshot of the couple. (Given that she spent much of her time at the production swarmed by press and fans, I doubt she caught the conversation.) For an opera that is in large part about totalitarian surveillance and the repression of opinion, it was a moment that made me question my role as a critic.
No reviewer, however compelling their stance, will create a total and unquestioning acceptance of that opinion within the general public. And my opinion seemed as worthless as East German currency in West Berlin next to theirs. But as illustrated by Atwood’s “unpleasant” story, adapted for opera by Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley, we’re only allowed those disparate opinions because we don’t live in a totalitarian state—one reason why The Handmaid’s Tale has become more vital in 2019.
Atwood’s novel painted a dystopian image of the American future: A natural disaster prompts a Chernobyl-style nuclear meltdown in the United States that in part reduces fertility rates. This leads to a bloody overthrow of the government by a Christian coalition, who establish the Republic of Gilead. In response to the population crisis, Gilead forces women who are able to have children into servitude as Handmaids. Referred to alternately as mere containers and sacred vessels, their sole purpose is to bear the children of Gilead’s barren political elite, a nod to the Biblical legend of Jacob and Rachel. Their names are changed to reflect the “Commander” whose household they serve at any given time: Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren.
Now a mainstay on summer reading lists and course syllabi, Atwood’s novel was initially received with mixed reviews. Some readers felt, even with the genre “science fiction” slapped onto the back cover, it was too disconnected from reality. Others gravitated towards it as a landmark on the Damascene road to Third Wave feminism. When Ruders adapted the work in 2000, it, too, saw an interdenominational response. The world premiere at the Danish Royal Opera was met with a warm reception. A subsequent transfer to the English National Opera in 2003 was more coolly received, while a Minnesota Opera production in the same year prompted The New York Times to urge a fast-tracked Met production.
Yet all three of these performances occurred before one of the most threatening American presidencies with regards to the individual and reproductive rights of women, a climate that prompted Boston Lyric’s decision to mount The Handmaid’s Tale this season. “People are afraid of a different kind of future that they weren’t afraid of, say, a year and a half ago,” Atwood told Anxy magazine in early 2017. BLO’s production is also the first time the opera has been heard in its actual setting, Massachusetts (or, in the novel, what had been that state).
BLO takes this homecoming even more literally by staging the work in Harvard University’s basketball gym, a location that inspired the setting of the Red Center (where Handmaids are trained and indoctrinated). The line “I want you to hear me because I want you to believe that you were there,” sung by the opera’s heroine, Offred – a tireless Jennifer Johnson Cano, who is onstage for practically the entire two-act work – carried added resonance with a site-specific location.
It also heightens the unpleasantness of the story, which resonates with readers and audiences on a much deeper level now, but also calls to mind historical attacks on human rights. Atwood name-checks Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in the same Anxy interview, noting that such attacks have “happened and un-happened many times in history.” I wondered if the couple seated near me felt that resonance, from this year’s introduction of the “Heartbeat bill” to a fuller spectrum of horrors of the past century, many of which they must have lived through.
The intention behind Atwood’s plot, rendered on an opera stage, is also a bit of an anomaly. While the role of women in opera has never been one forged in equanimity, their character arcs – a prototype of the film and television trope defined by Alice Bolin as the “Dead Girl”– were mostly symbolic without substance. Tosca exists to jump off of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Violetta exists to die of consumption. Gilda exists first as an object of conquest, later as a martyr to Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps what’s most unpleasant to watch in Bentley’s libretto is the transformation of what Catherine Clément described in 1979 as “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies.”
Yes, women die in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are used as sexless objects for pleasure and procreation. They have no rights to property, suffrage, or even opinions. But rather than using this as merely a plot device, the petit mort of a work of art that speaks to larger themes, Ruders and Bentley make it the sum totality of the plot.
This forces audiences to examine not just our relationship to the rights of women, but also our relationship to opera itself. Historically, we’ve been conditioned to go through the motions of seeing an opera with the same impersonal nature the men of Gilead bring to inseminating their Handmaids on a monthly basis (referred to as the “Ceremony”). To actively participate as an audience member means meeting a story that is, almost by definition, discomfiting. Art is a means of calibrating our moral compass.
Yet if Atwood had already accomplished so much of this with her book, how does the operatic medium enhance this still further? Ruders has seen much of the same century as Atwood, and layers in musical references to match her historical context.
Aunt Lydia, the domineering mother hen of Handmaids (sung to chilling effect by Caroline Worra), enters with a Shostakovich-style fanfare that brings with it all the urgency of the “Leningrad” Symphony. Ruders also borrows from Shostakovich’s ability to quote other musical themes outside of his own canon, remixing them into his own score as a form of commentary. “Amazing Grace” is a recurring theme — it’s the song that Offred’s mistress used to sing on an evangelical television program in what’s known as the Time Before Gilead. (Dystopia relies on there being a time before, and there being some recollection of that time, as a contrast.) Ruders’s twists and morphs of one of the most recognizable hymns in Christianity ensconce all memories of that song in the Time Before against frantic, frenetic strings.
The score, at turns jagged and dysmorphic, full of drones and dissonance, acts as its own totalitarian element. Focus too much on it, and it’s easy to be pummeled into exhaustion and submission. Rather than run parallel to their orchestral counterparts, the vocal lines cut through in a more perpendicular fashion. Conversations in Gilead, as in most totalitarian states, are scripted and rote to avoid the appearance of sedition.
The music that accompanies this script, however, forms some of the most visceral and emotional responses lobbied against state-dictated platitudes (“What I feel is that I must not feel,” says Offred). To argue that Ruders isn’t Puccini is an irony, as he accomplishes much of what Puccini did a century ago, allowing the orchestra to set an atmospheric tone—even opening Act II with some initial notes that call to mind the introduction to Act III of Turandot. Both composers are spinning from the same skein.
And, much like the composers that came before Ruders, what keeps us moving through the irredeemable world of a despotic state is the music. The score operates as a contained environment, its own sacred vessel, for us to engage with Atwood’s story on a level beyond the book, its 1990 film adaptation, or even the recent and ongoing Hulu series. It’s an entry point for watching the story play out in the same physical space as the characters, with a score that resonates in every space in every bleacher. (Points to the BLO creative team, including sound designer J. Jumbelic and set and costume designer James Schuette, for making Harvard’s Ray Lavietes Pavilion an acoustically viable space for opera).
In true Ruders fashion, the score is often at its most unapologetically beautiful during some of the most heinous moments onstage. (For a future variation on this theme, this scene from his 2010 opera, Selma Jezková, still haunts me). This reaches an apotheosis in Offred’s duet with her double from the Time Before, portrayed by mezzo soprano Felicia Gavilanes.
With a disjointed story that veers between Offred’s present as a Handmaid and the past events that lead to her and her family’s capture, the eventual overlap of’ music and storylines from both offers no resolution, but it does highlight the circular nature of questions asked and re-asked at different points. Offred in the Time Before asks them just after she and her family are arrested for trying to escape to Canada; Offred now asks them again as she tries fruitlessly to get pregnant on her third posting, and senses her world is about to implode. The overlapping what-ifs are turned over and over like a Janus coin between both singers, at times alternating syllables of the same line.
It’s one of the most touching moments in this score, but what Ruders subverts even in this moment is that there are no clear resolutions, onstage or in real life. Anne Bogart takes this fever pitch of uncertainty one step further for this production: Previous incarnations of The Handmaid’s Tale frame the work in a prologue and postscript set in 2195, recounting Offred’s story through a professor who presents her as a case study before revealing that no one knows what happened to her as the score dissipates ominously.
Here, Offred takes control of her own story from the opening lines to the finale. In a mock arrest by the underground resistance, Offred is broken out of the circle of Handmaids. But is this the end? Or a new beginning? The score swirls with memories of past and present, casting a distorted Dutchman sort of aura. Offred from the Time Before and her daughter cut across the stage again. A final chord, which rings out as a traditional finale, solid and determined, arrives tangled in an orchestral net of ghostly distortion.
We’re left without sound resolution, but we at least can take comfort in the certainty that this happened and un-happened many times in history.
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.